Keeping The Sabbath Wholly
Exodus 20.8-11; Mark 2:23-28
Mark Twain—he’s always good for a laugh!
A businessman notorious for his ruthlessness, announced to Mark Twain: “Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top.” Mark Twain responded: “I have a better idea. You could stay home in Boston and keep them!”
Today I want us to look at the fourth of the Ten Commandments and I want us to figure out how we can stay home in Orlando and keep it. The commandment reads: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the most misunderstood, the most misinterpreted, and the most distorted of all the commandments. To bring some clarity to this picture, I would like to look at the commandment from the negative perspective, then from the positive perspective.
Let’s look first in the negative—the way the commandment should not be understood…
Number One: The commandment should not be taken in a legalistic way.
The emphasis should not be on things that cannot be done on the Lord’s day, and yet that is precisely what most people have done with this commandment over the years. They have made it a heavy burden to be borne. Of course, that’s not anything new. Shortly after the commandment was delivered, strict legalists went to work drawing restrictive laws that so encumbered the Sabbath, that it became a day of drudgery. In fact, shortly after the commandment was delivered, the strict legalists went to work restricting activity on the Sabbath, so that by the time of Jesus, there were no less than 1,521 things you could not do on the Sabbath day. Many of them were ridiculous, all of them were negative. For example, there was a rule which prohibited carrying a burden on the Sabbath, which sounds reasonable until you realize that they had stretched that rule to prohibit wearing false teeth on the Sabbath because that was carrying a burden. Or there was the rule declaring it illegal to harvest on the Sabbath. Sounds reasonable, until you understand that on the basis of that rule, it was unlawful to look into a mirror on the Sabbath, lest you notice a gray hair amongst the dark ones and pluck it out—that would be reaping, and thus a violation. There was also a rule about no hunting on the Sabbath, but believe it or not, that was expanded to include picking fleas off an animal or even yourself! So the Scribes and Pharisees went overboard in turning the Sabbath into an exercise in legalism to the absurd. But God didn’t mean for the Sabbath to be a burden for us, He meant for it to be a blessing to us. Jesus clearly stated that the Sabbath is meant to help us, not hinder us. Therefore, this commandment should not be taken in a legalistic way.
Number Two. The commandment should not be taken in a loose way.
This is the flip side of the coin- the opposite of that first misunderstanding. This interpretation declares that anything and everything is permissible on the Sabbath day. In this view, Sunday may be a holiday, but it has long since ceased to be a holy day. The people who take this position on Sunday go everywhere but to church and do everything but worship, and they excuse themselves by saying; “I feel just as close to God at the beach or on the golf course.”
Joy Davidman, C. S. Lewis’ wife, wrote a book on the Ten Commandments entitled: Smoke on the Mountain. In her chapter on the fourth commandment, with a wonderful piece of satire, she describes a student from Mars who comes to earth to research a paper on the ways earth people worship. Here is what the young Martian supposedly wrote in his Master’s thesis:
“The creatures of earth seem to be sun-worshipers. One day in every seven is set apart for the adoration of their sun deity, that is, with weather permitting. The rituals vary and each involves a special form of dress, but all are conducted in the open air, and most seem to require enormous crowds. Some earth creatures gather in vast arenas and watch strangely garbed priests perform elaborate ceremonies involving a ball and variously shaped instruments of wood like bats. Others, no doubt, the mystics and solitaries of their religion, prefer to address that ball with long clubs, singly or in groups of two or four, wandering in green fields. Some, stripping themselves almost naked in their ecstasy, go down to the seashore in great throngs and there perform their rites- often hurling themselves into the waves with frenzied cries. After the ceremonial immersion, they anoint themselves with holy oils and then stretch out full length with eyes closed, to surrender themselves entirely to the sun god. Human sacrifice, sad to say, is also practiced. The instrument of death being a four-wheel metal motor car. There exists, however, a small group of heretics who do not practice sun worship. These people clothe themselves more soberly and completely than the sun-worshipers. They too gather in groups, but only to hide from the sun in certain buildings, which have windows of glass colored and stained to keep out the light. It’s not clear whether these creatures are simply unbelievers, or whether they are excommunicated from sun worship for some offense.”
End of thesis. But you tell me, was the young Martian terribly wrong or painfully right? So many people today make Sunday anything but a day of holiness. You know, in the business world where random drug testing takes place, it is no accident that they always do the tests on Monday mornings. Why? Because Saturday and Sunday are the days people are most likely to experiment with drugs. On Sunday anything goes. The Fourth Commandment should not be taken in such a loose and permissive way.
Number Three. The commandment should not be taken in a limited way.
Some people, in a very subtle way, distort the meaning of this commandment. They use the phrase: “Remember the Sabbath day…” to limit God’s activity in their lives to Sundays only. They have the mistaken notion that Christianity is just a one-day-a-week affair, so they come on Sunday to appease God and then for the rest of the week they ignore Him. They say: “Sunday is for God. The rest of the week is for me.” In other words, they try to lock God up in the church. But we must take Him out to the world that is starving to death for Him—for the love He extends and the salvation He brings. Christ is not simply the Lord of the Sabbath—He is the Lord of all life, and He is the Lord of every day. Therefore, when we remember the Sabbath Day, we need to keep it holy (H-O-L-Y) yes, but we also need to keep it wholly (W-H-O-L-L-Y). That is to say, the principles we exalt on Sunday, we need to exercise every other day.
But let’s look now at the positive side—the way the commandment ought to be understood.
First, the Sabbath ought to be understood as a day of rest.
From the creation story in Genesis to the benediction in the book of Revelation, the Bible makes it dramatically clear that there is a rhythm to life—a rhythm of work and worship, of labor and rest. The old Greek proverb says: “The bow that is always bent, eventually will cease to shoot at all.” We need to hear that word—those of us living in this frantic, pressure-packed world, rushing at breakneck speed through life, burning the candle at both ends. We can identify with the fellow who went to his doctor for a check-up. He was worn, weary, frazzled. The doctor told him that he was foolishly overextending himself. He would have to slow down. He replied: “Look, doctor, I didn’t come here to get a lecture about burning the candle at both ends, I came in here for more wax!” But there is no more wax. Not even a miracle drug. We have to stop and rest. God made us that way. Dr. Cecil Myers tells about a group of Americans on a safari in Africa. They hired native guides to lead them. The first day they rushed through the jungle. The second day they were up at dawn to push forward. Likewise, the third, fourth, fifth and sixth days. On the seventh day the American explorers were up early and anxious to get started, but their guides were lying very quietly in their places. “C’mon”, the Americans shouted, “Time’s a-waisting. Hurry up. Let’s get going.” The lead guide then replied in his broken English: “We no go today. We rest. Let souls catch up with bodies.”
That’s what we do on Sunday. We rest. We slow down. We center in on the Lord. We let our souls catch up with our bodies. We recharge our spiritual batteries. Sunday is a day of rest.
And the Sabbath ought to be understood as a day of remembering.
It’s the time when we establish or reestablish the right priorities in life. I have always loved something William Barclay said near the end of his life. He said: “I’m an old man now, and over the years I have learned that there are very few things in life that really matter. But those few things matter intensely!” Love for God, love for people, love for family, honesty, integrity, justice, grace, forgiveness, kindness—those are the things that really matter. I don’t know nearly as much about those good things as I would like to know, but what I do know about them, I have gotten from the church. That’s why worship every Sunday is so important. It’s the day when we come together to remember the Word of God, the will of God, the ways of God, the promises of God, the call of God, the saving grace of God. I don’t know about you, but I need to come together every week with my sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus to remember all of the good things God has done for me, and all the glorious hope He has set before me in Jesus Christ. So I need a day of rest, but I also need a day of remembering.
And then the Sabbath ought to be understood as a day of resurrection.
The word Sabbath literally means “seventh.” Of course, the seventh day is Saturday. Have you ever wondered why most Christians worship on Sunday? It’s because for Christians, every Sunday is a little Easter. Every Sunday we celebrate the resurrection. My professor in Seminary, Dr. Kenneth Phifer, used to say: “If at some point in every service of worship on every Sunday of the year the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not directly mentioned, or at least alluded to, then you haven’t properly worshiped God on Sunday. Sunday is a resurrection day. Every Sunday is an Easter Sunday.”
Do you know the name Dr. Laura Schlessinger? She is a popular talk show hostess, heard all over the country, and heard here every morning from 9-12 p.m. on WDBO.. Tragically, most talk shows today have become “verbal sewers”. However, in contrast to the unending profane language and the perverse conversation found on most such programs today, “Dr. Laura”, as she is called, is sound in her common sense, her advice, and in her responses, and above all else, she is clean, moral, upright, and uplifting. But she is also quick to zero in on fuzzy thinking or improper behavior. Not long ago, a woman called in to Dr. Laura and said that her little girl was misbehaving and she wondered if she should take away the Easter bunny as punishment. Dr. Laura said: “What in the world does the Easter bunny have to do with it?” The woman said; “Well, we taught her that when she is nice, the Easter bunny will come and bring her nice things, but when she misbehaves, the Easter bunny will not bring her anything at all—it’s kind of like Santa Claus at Christmas.” Dr. Laura then said: “Didn’t you tell me that you are Christians?” The woman said; “Yes, we are Christians.” Dr. Laura then asked: “Then why are you teaching your child about the Easter bunny in the first place? Why aren’t you teaching her about the resurrection and about Jesus being alive in the world?” The woman was silent for a moment, and then she said: “Well, we are Christians, but we don’t talk about things like that around our house. That’s what the church is for, isn’t it?”
Dr. Laura is right. If we’re Christians, we ought to be talking about the resurrection in our homes, and we ought to be teaching our children that Jesus Christ is alive. But also, we ought to be celebrating that great truth in church; not just once a year, not just occasionally, but every single Sunday. That’s why for most Christians the Sabbath is on Sunday—to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every Sunday is Easter Sunday.
The message is clear. The Sabbath is a time for rest, for remembering, and for resurrection. It is not a time for binding prohibition, but rather a time for magnificent possibilities. Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for the benefit of people. People were not made for the benefit of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath Day then is yours and it is mine. Therefore, let’s keep it holy—H-O-L-Y. And, let’s keep it wholly—W-H-O-L-L-Y.